From Clarion to Myanmar, Along with the West

“Where are you from?” my cab driver eyes me in the rearview mirror, flowers and a fading picture of Aung San Suu Kyi dangling from it precariously. When it spins I can see a picture of President Obama on the reverse side.

“America,” I tell him. His eyes widen, and he points to the Obama side of the image.

“America, yes! Obama, very good!” He gives me a big thumbs up, and I nod. His English is about as good as my Burmese, so the substance for our conversation is limited, but the sentiment of our communication is profound. We both hope for good things for the country; he hopes the US helps to facilitate these things, and I hope Myanmar doesn’t let anyone, including the US, tell them what is best for their wellbeing. 

Although nothing too heavy is exchanged, we seem to have an understanding: the current political situation is hectic, and the only way to go from here is up. A few years ago, any kind of open exchange of political opinions would not happen. Not here, anyway, and certainly not with foreigners.

I grew up in Clarion - graduated from CG-HS in 2004 – and have spent the last nine months teaching English to children in Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country still known to much of the western world by its old name, Burma. The country’s name changed in 1989, a year after thousands of protesters (mostly college students, Buddhist Monks, and other educated people) were slaughtered by the ruling military junta as they peacefully assembled and attempted the rocky march towards a possible democracy. The changes extended beyond just renaming the country: the then-capital Rangoon became Yangon and many other towns and streets were renamed. In 2005 the capital was changed and moved north, away from students who might protest unfair treatment, to the new city of Naypidaw, created specifically for that purpose of having a buffer of space between the government and the people. A fantastic 2007 article on the politics of the name changes, called “Should it Burma or Myanmar?” can be found on the BBC website.

The average people you meet on the street are lovely. They imbue any interaction with the same flavor of “small town kindness” that Iowans are so proud of. Walking down the street, you smile and they smile back. Many people offer a shy ‘hello, ’ eager to practice their English, but many look puzzled when asked anything further, as the “hello” is the extent of it.

They look even more puzzled, but pleased, when you run anything by them in the local lingo, even if your awful accent requires you to repeat yourself several times. As a westerner, the average local people you meet seem mostly content and curious with your presence, and happy for whatever interaction they may have with you. I’ve been met with a lot of “what’s it like being a woman traveling alone?” with the assumption that danger lurks around every corner, but I’ve actually never felt safer anywhere in the world, including Iowa.

Still, brutal, awful things happen in this country, but I haven’t seen the truly horrific ones. 

I have been safely cocooned within the anodyne VIP section of the city reserved for Westerners. It’s not a physical district, mind you, but more of a free pass that comes with mandatory rose-colored glasses. It’s the safe zone of comfortable coffee shops and expensive hotels where things are familiar and culturally sterile, businesses that look like they could exist in any major city in the world. Walls that surround steel and concrete skeletons of future buildings are papered by 10 foot tall images of Caucasian consumers laughing gaily, backed by the affiliation of various corporate interests.

A sea of hardworking locals pass the ads, some in their hardhats and work boots, some setting up their street stalls, some with the traditionalthanaka (like a local, natural sun cream lotion) painted in intricate designs on their faces. No one peers suspiciously at the images of the new economic “progress,” because they work too hard to exert that extra energy. Under a military dictatorship, eyes-forward, heads down has been the local posture, so maybe it’s easy enough to ignore the jutting images all together.

No one but a facsimile of the advertisement (me) seems to think it’s strange for that stretch of faces to be there. But these pictures show what grand things can come with future hotels, shopping malls, and scientific progress…and they are advertising to their most valued demographic: investors with money. This country has a history of investors from other regions in Asia, but they are just opening up to the West. Previously there had been trade embargo with the US because of disapproval with Myanmar’s actions against various ethnic and religious groups in the country.

In November 2012, President Obama visited Myanmar, and morale of laypeople seems to have been lifted greatly by that acknowledgement by the outside world. Their developing presence is new to everyone; people within Myanmar are undertrained in many areas, and people around the world have no real idea what to make of their emergence; unless they have a reason to go looking for information on this country, they won’t find it. It certainly isn’t covered by most of the news networks favored by locals, which is surprising, becuase newsworthy things happen every single day: Myanmar/Burma is currently one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. (The Human Rights Watch website has a much more well-documented rendition of some of these atrocities)

The small moments of quirky beauty unique to this country, like roadside beer gardens and curry shops with squat plastic stools and knee-high tables, are gradually being lost, encroached upon by big, upscale shops on all sides, overtaken by the comfortable neutrality of Western “progress.”

The most obvious example is found in the way people travel. Cars are now much more affordable than they were a few years ago, and so the streets overflow with rush hour traffic, clogging the routes that trishaw drivers would normally drift across. A trishaw, for those who have never seen one, is a bicycle with a sidecar reserved for passengers (or a ridiculous amount of any cargo you could imagine). There is no public transit other than busses that have been salvaged from circa 1952, or pick-up trucks with cages across the back, able to fit about 20 people on benches inside and nearly as many standing, hanging off the back. Although both seem completely unsafe, and are more than a little unnerving at first for someone used to rigid seat belt laws, they are a pervasive example of local life, one able to be viewed and enjoyed anywhere in the city at nearly any time of day. These are the only real options for the majority of people, who cannot afford a private car, and they are being pushed out by the Porches and Bentleys (I’m not kidding) purchased by the wealthy. There are no roads suitable to really show off what such luxury cars can accomplish, but they are bought purely for the status of being seen in it. 

If I hadn’t taken the chance to come here, I wouldn’t even know something was slowly being lost. I still have only a sliver of knowledge regarding what lays out beyond the horizon, but I know this: even if it’s not what you expect, or it scares you, or it breaks your heart: travel. Build a skill set, and bring it with you. Bring an open mind, a warm heart, a creative spirit, and share that kit with anyone you meet. The world is such a huge place! 

In a world so full of variety, you cannot possibly be content with meager, repetitive portions of it. The world is big, but it folds back on itself. We are not really worlds apart, as I have learned from this journey: there are countless Iowans in Burma and Burmese in Iowa, and this is only one example. We live in a global economy, and the least we can do is to recognize the many ways that impacts us. The occupations we persue and the things we consume all tie us to many places around the world. The people we pass on the street are more diverse than we could imagine. As friendly Iowans, it’s our global responsibly as ambassadors of hospitality to bridge the gap and show a genuine concern for the world at large, not to just smile and nod as we let it pass us by.

For more info, read the Human Rights Watch 2014 world report on Burm